Ok, for those of you who have been following my ashamedly erratic blogging from the start, let me apologise! It’s just, SO much happens. I spend most of my time doing it, meaning less time to write about it! So, here I am in Fiji. In relative seclusion. I have chosen the ‘quiet’ place to stay on the small island of Mana, Sereana Backpackers, as opposed to the party option of Mana Lagoon Backpackers in the vain hope of simply relaxing and putting in some quality blog time (and catching some rays!). As it happens, the party backpackers is next door. No more then 10ft away!! I’ve quickly learned the expression ‘Fijian style’. I guess this is the quiet backpackers ‘Fijian style’. To give another example. On the small speedboat ride out here, (which, by the way was 50 minutes of pure adrenalin over shark infested waters!) I was sitting at the back. The ‘pilot’ of our vessel chucked me a rain jacket and said “put this on, you may get a little wet”. As soon as we hit open water the boat was leaping off waves and crashing down causing torrents of water to flood over me from the ensuing wake. For the other 6 or 7 passengers under cover, this provided most of the entertainment for the duration. So, for ‘get a little wet’ in Fijian read ‘you might as well swim’. Love it.
I’m gonna split February in to 2 parts and attempt to cover each in no more than 3,000 words. I think, after that point you’ll probably find yourself reaching for your pointing device and checking facebook or the weather. Oops, there goes 250 words already. Ok, at the end of the last blog (excluding the Fijian brucie bonus) I was about to fold myself into a Greyhound bus seat for a few hours bound for Agnes Water/1770. Game on.
FEBRUARY – PART 1
You might recall I was having a bit of a ‘poor me’ moment at Rainbow Beach. My crumbie come down after the sunshine coast extravaganza. Well, I’m sorry to say it continued when I reached Agnes Water! The whole sty in the eye thing got worserer and worserer. I eventually dragged my ass to a chemist and got some cream after ‘suffering’ with it for a week. Guess what? Two days later it had gone! Ain’t medicine BRILLIANT?! But, for the 2 days prior to the magic potion I ‘poor me’d’ my way through. The backpackers I had chosen, Southern Cross, was remote. Very remote. In which case, the Irish lad running the place took it upon himself to provide entertainment. It really was car crash for me. My days of standing in front of a baying crowd of pissed up teens and early twenty-ists whilst an unknown lady from god knows where tries to send a gobstopper up one of my trouser legs, around my crotch and back down the other side before proudly chewing it and blowing a bubble ahead of the competition are gone. Long gone. Same goes for dancing with another unknown lady, until the music stops, before assuming the most bizarre sexual position you can think of in an attempt to win an equally bizarre prize. When the mud wrestling was announced, I headed for bed. Call me old, I guess I am in relation to 18 and 19 year olds, but I CAN party. I don’t need a ringmaster to create a party for me. Especially a munted Irishman bellowing at full volume down a PA system. The only highlight was that I bumped into Claudia again. Remember? From Switzerland? We had the whole candle lit Australia Day bbq thing.
In the morning I took one of the free bikes offered by the hostel and headed out to Seventeen Seventy, and the exact point where Capt. Cook landed. Along the way, I stopped off for a bit of sunbathing and a swim in the sea with Claudia. She was staying in the town at a backpackers called Cool Banana’s! It sounded WAY better than mine.
I needed out of this place. I stopped off at the tourist info centre to check for buses or trains north. The bus times sucked. The next viable place for a stop off between here and Airlie Beach (for the Whitsunday Islands) was Rockhampton. Another helluva bus ride. The Greyhound would get me there just after midnight, leaving Agnes Water at 9pm. I could take a taxi to the next town and catch a train, but the cost was ridiculous considering I had my Greyhound pass already paid for. I then checked car hire. Nothing in this town. Aaaaargh! Ok, hitchhike. It’s the only way out! “Sure, you could hitchhike” was the encouragement from the tourist office. It was only after this that I found out hitchhiking in Australia is illegal! Anyway, only if you get caught. Just don’t stick your thumb out for a copper I guess. I’d checked out of Southern Cross, having already decided for sure I was not going to stay there. I headed off to the beach to sit and contemplate, when I passed by Claudia’s backpackers. It looked good, so I checked in. The owner, Greg, is a legend. Proper nice bloke, and fastidious about cleanliness. I met up with Claudia and we booked the Greyhound together for the following night at 9pm. At least I now had someone else with me having to deal with the less than convenient schedule. We booked the YHA in Rockhampton who are clearly used to the late arrivals. They gave us a code for a safe in which our keys would be waiting when we arrived. We went out for burger and chips to celebrate!
For somewhere of little consequence for most travellers up the east coast of Australia, Rockhampton provided some interesting moments. It’s a real ‘country & western’ wannabe town. It’s not unusual to see guys walking down the streets in full cowboy regalia, spurs and all! The town is famous for it’s meat produce so Claudia and me headed to a place called The Great Western Hotel to sample the steak. For added interest, the GWH also boasts a rodeo er, pitch? Field? Circuit? Not sure. Anyway, a dusty circle where guys ride bulls for as long as they can. Wednesday night was practice night. We hooked up with a girl called May, from Israel on our way out of the hostel. She was leaving on a 3am bus, so I promised her we would be back in time. We arrived at GWH and, small town Australia time again – kitchen was closed!! Had we not spent half an hour or so watching guys full off seemingly possessed bulls, we may have caught it. We hit the pubs and clubs, after negotiating the rail track that runs directly through the centre of town on the road. It’s not for trams, this is a full blown express route through Rockhampton! As we walked to the pubs an engine rumbled through, pulling endless amounts of freight. The freight carriages every now and then had the doors open, allowing my mind to wander off with images of jumping on and enjoying some true vagabond lifestyle!
The nightlife in Rockhampton, or Rocky as it’s known, was pretty dire on a Wednesday night. Shortly before 2am, we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the hostel. Claudia wanted to stay, but I’d promised May I’d make sure she was back in time for her bus. Back at the YHA, May and I spent some time in the TV room before she hit the bus and I hit my bed.
Rocky also provided me with some aboriginal experience. We visited the Dreamtime exhibition, reportedly the largest collection of Aboriginal heritage in Australia. We were shown round by an aboriginal guide who told us much about the indigenous people of the country before teaching us how to throw a boomerang. Great fun! He ended the tour by playing the didgeridoo in an Aborigine cave setting. He was awesome! In between, a guy introduced to us as an ‘Islander’ talked about his home in the Torres Straits. The only Torres I had heard of previously was sold for £50 million to Chelsea (what a joke, by the way). The Torres Straits sound amazing. I would really love to visit, although I understand it’s notoriously expensive to travel there.
The Greyhound to Airlie beach was a true overnighter. Leaving Rocky at 00.40am and arriving in Airlie at around 7am. The upside of such a trip is you get free accommodation. The downside is, it’s on a bus!
We were greeted at Airlie by the owner of the hostel who whisked us less than half a mile down the road to Beaches. It was cheap, only $18 a night. I think the reason for the low cost, is their low overheads. I’m pretty sure they don’t have any cleaning staff to pay. Considering I was on the verge of one of the most beautiful places on earth, the place was a disgrace. By far the worst hostel I have stayed in. The kitchen was more like an ant farm. The carpets were worn and filthy. The corridors would make a great setting for a violent murder mystery film, and to top it all off I’d lost my bank card and passport. Ok, so that’s not Beaches fault but I blame them anyway! Claudia had enough after one night and relocated to the YHA. I saw it out, only due to the cost savings.
As Claudia checked in at the YHA, I asked if they could contact the Rocky YHA to see if my card and passport had be found. Sweet baby Jesus, they had my passport. Somehow, it had fallen down behind the sofa in the TV room. You can travel half way around the world, but the ability to lose shit down the sofa remains. My bankcard, however, is still MIA.
A good Samaritan was travelling on the next bus from Rockhampton up to Airlie and so, was furnished with the important cargo of my passport. It duly arrived at the YHA in Airlie, however, due to changes of staff nobody knew who my hero/heroin was. I would loved to have thanked them personally with a drink or two! So, passport and idiot duly reunited I turned to the next task. Getting money without the use of a bankcard. In true Gordie style, I had a backup plan. I had another card. Yeah, that’s not true Gordie style at all. That bit comes when I realise, I had another card but had no idea of the pin number!! My adventure was hanging by a thread. More than anything else in Australia, the Whitsunday Islands was the place I wanted to visit. With no means of paying for it for the foreseeable future, I was stuffed. I had a small amount of cash that would maybe last a week of hostel and food and that was that. I shared my woes with Claudia, again grateful for a travelling companion at that moment. “Don’t worry about it” she said. “I will lend you some money until you get sorted. How much do you need?” I’d been with Claudia for a few days now and hadn’t even realised she was a travel angel, they really can sneak up on you! Immediate implosion diverted. I set about getting a ’pin reminder’ for my backup card which would have to be received via Corby. Simple. Although, Nationwide certainly dragged their heals in sending it! In fact, I didn’t get it until I arrived in New Zealand!
I discovered a couple of places where they could bypass the EFTPOS (Aussie equivalent of chip n pin, a ridiculous acronym that nobody knows what it stands for!) so I could sign instead. Fortunately, one of these places was a small independent agent booking trips to the Whitsundays. During my exhaustive search for the vital vessel to take me to this perfect paradise, I came across a flyer for ’On Ice’. It screamed cool. With thoughts of the depressing ’Nimbin’ trip on my mind, I had decided to go for a small boat. There are boats to suit all budgets and tastes. Party boats of over 30 people, right down to private charter for 2. ’On Ice’ held 10 people maximum. An added benefit of smaller boats is they can go to secluded spots that the bigger ones can’t access. On Ice was also laden with toys. A genius stroke of marketing for a grown up kid like me. Stand-up paddle boards, see-thru kayak, a sea-doo and windsurfs. It was an easy choice in the end. The agent put me on standby for the best price. This meant I wouldn’t know until the day before if I could get on, but I would get a huge saving. The number of tourists was down in general for the area following the Brisbane floods and the devastating Cyclone Yasi over northern Queensland, so the prices were better still. I took the chance, and it paid off. As it happens, the timing of the trip coincided with valentines day. I prayed for some other solo travellers on board. My prayers went unanswered. Sometimes, we don’t know best and things work out for other reasons.
I arrived at the port, armed with 10 bottles of beer and 2 bottles of wine. This was a 3 day, 2 night trip. I felt confident I wouldn’t run out. The beer on one night, the wine on the other. Simples. I looked around at the others gathered at the meeting point. My agent had said there were only 7 booked on, so with a capacity of 10 we should be pretty comfortable. My stomach sank as I quickly realised that I was the odd one in 7. Two, very obviously in love couples were sitting around chatting and laughing whilst another 2 girls sat together opposite me. My mind compounded things further by suggesting that the 2 girls were also probably lovers and that I’d better hope the captain of the ship hadn’t decided to bring his missus too for a valentine extravaganza!! Maybe I could get a date with a dolphin? I was over $400 deep into this mission, turning and running, by far the loudest thought in my mind, was not an option. Worse things happen at sea. Hmm, that’s not helping much.
The Captain, Luke arrived at the jetty. He was a big fella, bronzed from his hardships at the helm of On Ice. His blonde, curly hair sprouted wildly from his head. He looked like a male medusa, only with really long worms instead of snakes. The proposed trip was laid out to us. It’s never the same, and is governed by weather and tides. We were to set sail immediately and head towards the islands. It was over 2 hours to our first destination, the ride out inventively billed as a ’sunset sail’. We clambered on board, handing our footwear in which would not been seen again until arriving back in Airlie. This was a multi-million dollar yacht, it was not worth our salt to scratch the gleaming deck.
Inside was truly amazing. Curved white leather seating, teak stained furniture, a beautifully crafted dining table and sleek tinted windows. We were shown to our cabins. My bed was kind of coffin shaped and seemingly in a corridor! It was wide enough at the top for my shoulders, and narrow enough at the bottom for my feet. I had a porthole by my head, through which Luke assured me I would wake up and see fish. Maybe even a dolphin. My heart skipped a beat!
I dumped my stuff and headed back up. We were out of the port now, so I asked if I could move along the side of the boat to the front area. I just wanted to go a chill for a while and try and quash the negative thoughts of valentines and couples! Not long after I settled down, the others came and joined me. Andy introduced himself to me, and in true ’we never looked back’ fashion, we never looked back. One by one, we all became acquainted. The elite members of the On Ice crew consisted of Andy and Aimee (UK), Tristan and Mae (FR) and Ilse and Sylvia (B). All very European, and all very, very cool.
Andy and Aimee are very much a couple. Andy is on a world travelling mission, and Aimee had flown out to spend a few weeks with him. They are an awesome couple. Move over Posh and Becks! Tristan and Mae were in the midst of their honeymoon, a fact I didn’t learn until the following weeks when Andy finally pulled his finger out and got everyone connected via facebook! These two would also have a place at the table of awesome couples. And then my Belgian friends. Just to dispel any rumours to the contrary that I may have hinted at, they are not a couple! Sylvia was good fun, and Ilse has a real sense of adventure. Proper traveller. She took on the role of official On Ice photographer, although we are still to see the fruits of her labour! I really liked her sense of humour, hopefully we will meet up for a Belgian beer or two sometime in the future.
I‘m gonna finish off with a note I scribbled on the first night of the trip.
“We’ve arrived at a bay just off Whitehaven Island. I’ve just had the most delicious bbq chicken meal, served up by Craig, the ship’s hand. The stars out here are incredible. The milky way, glistening like paint splattered from a celestial brush across the stunning canvas of the southern skies. I can feel the boat rocking gently in the calm of the bay. It’s an early start in the morning, but it’s gonna be so worth it. Coral reef bursting with life and the silica sands of Whitsunday Island awaits. This is why I‘m here, for moments like these. I can’t wait.”